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Archive for April, 2009

So long Souter?

“At 69, Souter is nowhere near the oldest member of the court, but he has made clear to friends for some time now that he wanted to leave Washington, a city he has never liked, and return to his native New Hampshire.” Is Justice Souter retiring after this Supreme Court term? NPR seems to think so. I’d prefer it was Scalia’s time to go, of course…but oh well. “Souter, though appointed by the first President Bush, generally votes with the more liberal members of the court, a group of four that is in a rather consistent minority.” And two of those — Stevens and Ginsberg — are good bets to retire soon as well.

The Power of Snikt.

“Standing 5 foot 3, weighing 300 pounds (thanks to that metal skeleton), he’s a hairy-backed fashion victim from a country nobody takes seriously. But look around any high-school or college cafeteria during lunch hour at the armies of hairy-backed, height and weight disproportionate fashion victims and you’ll quickly realize that these are his people. If you’re a nerd, a loser, an outcast, or a misfit then there’s only one all-purpose tough guy for you. Wolverine: He’s just like us. Only Canadian.

Over in Slate and in honor of his new solo movie (which I’m still planning to skip — I’m sure it’ll be mildly entertaining on TNT in a few years), Grady Hendrix doffs his hat to the enduring popularity of Wolverine. If you say so, bub. When I wasn’t crushing on Kitty Pryde — I was always more of a Nightcrawler kid, so i’ll take your word for it. At any rate, Hendrix’s evisceration of the trademark Claremont style is pretty funny (although I’d disagree with him that Wolvie is Claremont’s Malcolm X — That would be Magneto.)

Hedge of No Return.

But while many stakeholders made sacrifices, some did not. In particular, a group of investment firms and hedge funds that hoped to hold out for a taxpayer-funded bailout. I don’t stand with them. I stand with Chrysler’s employees, management and suppliers. I don’t with stand with those who held out when everybody else made sacrifices.” President Obama announces that Chrysler will file for bankruptcy, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of hedge funds who rejected an 11th-hour deal to save the company, apparently in the hopes of garnering more bailout cash.

The hedge funds in question have fired back, of course. Apparently, they’re all for the “rule of law” and upholding our “world-leading bankruptcy code.” I’d probably be more inclined to take them seriously on these matters if they weren’t also trying to spike regulation of their industry that is long overdue. At it is, i’m thinking profit is more of a motivator here than principled civil disobedience.

At any rate, I think Salon‘s Andrew Leonard is exactly right about where public opinion will come down on this one. Says one observer (cited by Leonard) of what happened today: “The banksters are eagerly, shamelessly, and openly harvesting their pound of flesh from financially stressed average taxpayers, and setting off a chain reaction in the auto industry which has the very real risk of creating even larger scale unemployment than the economy already faces. It’s reckless, utterly irresponsible, over-the-top greed.” From my admittedly limited vantage, that sounds like a plausible reading.

And he bled ’til Sunday night.

“‘We know that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay,’ Foxx said during debate. ‘The bill was named for him, the hate-crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.’” Ladies and gentlemen, today’s rump Republican party in action: During House debate, North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx deems the anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998 a “hoax.” Classy. So, I guess Shepherd was really tied to a ranchpost and tortured to death because he wanted to draw attention to the gay agenda, right? These people make me sick.

I don’t agree with that…do I?

“I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified. I think right how it’s over-broad. But keep in mind what happens is, we come into office, we’re in for a week — and suddenly we’ve got a court filing that’s coming up. And so we don’t have the time to effectively think through what, exactly, should a overarching reform of that doctrine take. We’ve got to respond to the immediate case in front of us.”

In case you missed it last night — I’ll concede, I’d forgotten about the presser and was watching the NBA playoffs — President Obama was finally asked about his troubling continuation of Dubya’s state secrets policy during his “100 Days” press conference last night. [Full transcript.] And his answer — basically, the justice department turns like a battleship, but we’re on the case — is somewhat heartening, I guess, in that the president seems to concede anew that the privilege has been abused of late, even under his own administration. But, as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald reminds us today, the Obama/Holder JD has done a good bit more than just “stay the course” on states’ secrets since coming into office, and last night’s excuse — well, despite our actions over 100 days, this isn’t *really* our policy — isn’t going to hold water for much longer.

Also last night, while sort of pressed into it by ABC News’ Jake Tapper, President Obama said in no uncertain terms both that waterboarding is torture (correct) and that, as we all know, his predecessor’s administration sanctioned it: “I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.” Now, it isn’t the president’s call to move forward on an investigation and possible prosecutions at this point — that task falls to Attorney General Holder. Still, if what the president said last night is true, and it obviously is, then AG Holder has only one choice moving forward. It’s time to get to the bottom of this.

Soap Spies and Soapbox Conspiracies.

As per the norm of late, I seem to be well behind on both my movie-watching and movie-reviewing these days. (It’s been awhile since Watchmen.) In an attempt to rectify the former, at least, I hit up the multiplex a few weekends ago with a decision to make. Eventually, and based mainly on which projected path would involve the least amount of downtime between shows, I decided to forsake an Apatow-ish afternoon with the old Freaks & Geeks gang (I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report — still haven’t seen any of those) in favor of the latest batch of conspiracy-minded thrillers. Well, at least one of ’em was worth it.

First up was Tony Gilroy’s frothy but entertaining Duplicity, a tongue-firmly-in-cheek, corporate espionage rom-com of sorts that sadly didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. After a meet-cute in Dubai involving MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and CIA asset Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), we cut to rival cosmetics company CEO’s Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson going mano-a-mano like it’s Paris in 1778. Both looking for a leg up in the cutthroat world of shampoo, hand cremes, and lotions — not to mention a chance to roundly humiliate the other in corporate combat — these two masters of the universe have invested enough into their respective espionage and counter-intelligence departments (run by Milk/Michael Clayton‘s Denis O’Hare and writer-director Tom McCarthy respectively) to make Mossad blush.

Enter (once again) top-notch professional spies Ray and Claire, who discover they’ve both been hired by Giamatti’s intel outfit years after their earlier falling-out in Saudi Arabia. Will these two photogenic spooks be able to bury the hatchet long enough to fulfill their mission objective of screwing over Wilkinson good? Or was that particular hatchet perhaps buried on an earlier Roman holiday? As you might imagine from a movie called Duplicity (by the writer of the Bourne films, no less), nothing is what it seems at first. And most everyone, not the least our two protagonists, is playing more than a few angles.

Blessed with charismatic performances from its two leads — I don’t usually cotton to Julia Roberts much, but she’s fine here — Duplicity is a jaunty bit of fun that mainly works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sure, the wheels-within-wheels of the plot don’t quite always catch — They’re often contrived and sometimes needlessly convoluted. (If anyone out there saw the movie, could you explain what the significance of the marked bench was? I missed it.) And some of the setpieces definitely take too long, and don’t make much sense regardless. (See for example, the hunting-for-a-fax-machine sequence, which even the characters eventually call out as ludicrous.) But Duplicity gets away with much of this because it’s so goofy and good-natured about it all. If the cosmetics angle didn’t tip you off from jump street, the stakes of the game here are purposely hokey and overwrought — People talk about the MacGuffin here, a possible cure for baldness, like it’s the Ark of the Covenant.

In the end, Duplicity is probably 15-20 minutes too long, its final couple of twists are pretty easy to see coming, and the film then spends too much time showing us all the myriad details we could’ve worked out on our own. But it’s an amiable production through and through, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than watching Owen and Roberts sally sharp-edged barbs back-and-forth, debate the economic possibilities of frozen pizza, and occasionally tumble into the sack. At the very least, I didn’t leave Duplicity feeling cheated.

Which brings us to Kevin MacDonald’s State of Play, a movie that was sorely lacking the state-of-play that exuded from every soap-scrubbed pore of Duplicity. No, this is a Big Serious Film, about Big Serious Issues, like Sinister Political Corruption and the Decline of Newspapers and such. Now, I unfortunately missed the original BBC miniseries version of this tale, but from the cast alone (John Simm, Kelley MacDonald, Bill Nighy, Marc Warren, James McAvoy, Polly Walker) I have to bet it’s pretty good. But, as far as this American retelling goes, I found State of Play thoroughly ham-handed, mostly unbelievable, and often risible.

Darkness sets in early in State of Play, as the film begins with two seemingly unrelated deaths in our nation’s capital. First, a homeless bagsnatcher is hunted down in Georgetown and — conspiracy alert — executed with a ruthless, professional precision. Then, a comely Capitol Hill aide falls in front of a subway train in the middle of morning rush hour. (DC-area folks might find themselves pondering why said aide walked through Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan to board a train over in Roslyn, Virginia. Everyone else will just wonder why the fact she fell in a small security camera “blind spot” is so important when there had to have been several dozen eye-witnesses at the scene.)

We are then introduced to gruff, slovenly beat writer with a heart-of-gold Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who lumbers around the rest of the movie like a newspaperman out of Sesame Street — he not only knows every single working-class-joe in the District, but they all seem to want to do him favors. The yin to McAffrey’s yang over at the Washington Globe is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the smart, attractive, but unfortunately surface-skimming blogger at the new online desk. McAffrey and Frye are assigned to cover the two murders for the Globe respectively, but there’s a catch. For the dead aide, it turns out, happened to be having an affair with her boss, the up-and-comer Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who was currently leading a congressional investigation into Pointcorp, a Blackwater-style private military contractor.

What’s more, Rep. Collins was once none-other-than newsman McAffrey’s college roommate, and, complicating matters even further, both have shared the attentions of the congressman’s wife (Robin Wright Penn). Will Cal use his journalistic pull to smooth things over for his two old friends in the press? Will Della be able to renounce her bloggeriffic tendency to wallow in scandalous ephemera and find the real story buried here? And, when it comes out that the murders are inevitably linked and that there’s something very Dark and Troubling going on in the corridors of Washington, will Cal take Della under his wing and find a way to make her a “real” journalist? I mean, that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Even with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, who were originally cast as McAffrey and Collins respectively, gone from this production, State of Play has all the marks of a Big Important Film, including respected name actors popping up all over the place. The supremely talented Helen Mirren is passable as the hard-nosed, tough-talking editor/doyenne of the Globe, but she isn’t done any favors by the script, which keeps forcing her into goofy, Prime Suspect-style exclamations of Britishness. Jeff Daniels has some fun as a smarmy, probably-Republican Senator (“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain around me“), David Harbour of Revolutionary Road shows up as our slightly-off-kilter Deep Throat, Harry Lennix and Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis briefly play a detective and coroner respectively, and Jason Bateman just about walks away with the film as an oily club promoter caught in the middle of all the shenanigans. (He plays it broad, and seems to be the only person involved who recognized what a B-movie this is.)

But even all the talent on-screen can’t save State of Play from its very significant flaws. For one, the film clearly purports to be a paean to investigative journalism a la All the President’s Men, but the conspiracy that drives the story is outlandish in several ways. Basically — moderate spoilers here — it involves corporate and para-military thugs at the Blackwater outfit doing whatever is required to achieve their ultimate goal of “privatizing national security.” Now, I have no doubt that Blackwater and its ilk are shady as they come. And — given everything we’ve seen from them as lawless mercenaries in Iraq — it doesn’t take an extreme suspension of disbelief to envision a fictional Blackwater doing what they do here, engaging in under-the-table wetworks to protect some sizable market share.

But, and this is where the movie began to lose me, I’m not at all convinced that the Bad Guys here would even have to break the law as currently written to achieve their ultimate goal, and they definitely wouldn’t have to go to the sordid lengths suggested in State of Play. Maybe it’s news to the good people at the Washington Globe, but corruption has been effectively legalized for awhile now in DC. Why would Pointcorp be involved in such nefarious black-bag operations to ensure their pound-of-flesh profit margins, when they can just spread some money around legally and accomplish much the same objective? After awhile, I found the spy shenanigans here about as plausible as those of the evil soap corporations in Duplicity. (Honestly, did the writers not hear of Halliburton? They were bagging enormously lucrative no-bid military contracts for years the old-fashioned way.)

This brings me to my other major problem with State of Play — its depiction of journalism and what ails it. But, before I move on — and I’ll tread lightly here — State of Play makes a turn very late in the game that completely subverts the All the President’s Men conspiracy argument it’s been making up to then anyway, and it basically lets the air out of the entire movie. You can’t have it both ways, y’all.

Moving on, as most every single review will tell you, State of Play closes with a loving montage of each stage in the process of making a daily newspaper — the type being set, the rolls of paper being loaded, etc. etc. (They skip over all the crucial cutting-down-trees and paper-mill parts, of course — Let’s not get in the way of nostalgia.) And, yes, State of Play is very conspicuously crafted as a heartfelt ode to the newspaper industry in twilight, as mainly evidenced by the narrative tug between “good” journalist Cal, who pounds the beat relentlessly and tracks down every possible lead, and “bad” blogger Della, who — at first — opines without all the facts at her disposal and dishes out snark by the shovelful. (But don’t worry, it turns out she’s very trainable.)

Now, I posted briefly on this last month, but there are a lot of reasons newspapers are going under right now — market pressures, obviously, but also over-consolidation, a decline in local-area coverage, papers following the cable TV herds into surface-skimming irrelevance. And, for an equally loving, but more resonant critique of why it’s happening, I’d direct you to Season 5 of David Simon’s The Wire. As Simon says here: “In every episode, what’s being depicted is a newspaper that’s actually not connecting with the problems that exist on the ground. It’s not noticing that the police department has been cheating stats for years and making crime go away. It’s not noticing that the third grade test scores are being hyped so that No Child Left Behind is not exposed for what it is. That’s the critique, and very tellingly, almost perfectly, I think, with the exception of maybe one or two guys out there, everybody missed it.” Or, as Simon’s Gus Haynes puts it at one point when dissecting newspaper’s Pulitzer-hungry mentality: “It’s like you’re up on the corner of a roof and you’re showing some people how a couple of shingles came loose, and meanwhile a hurricane wrecked the rest of the damn house.

Now, whatever you think of this critique, notice it doesn’t have much if anything to do with bloggers. Ok, sure, the blogging mentality spilling over into “real” journalism perhaps hasn’t helped matters any — I said as much here. But the idea that the Della Fryes of the world — or Ana Marie Coxes, if you want to bring it home — are the main reason newspapers are in trouble right now, or the main reason newspapers miss the “real” conspiracies in our midst, is so facile as to be insulting.

State of Play tells a story of a “good” journalist at a “good” DC newspaper uncovering sordid scandal and “bad” corruption at the highest levels of government, all the while making a “good” protege out of a “bad” blogger. Well, sure, it’s a nice fairy tale, but let’s get real. I don’t remember bloggers having anything to do with Judith Miller, the NYT, and every other newspaper of note enabling Dubya’s whole fake-WMD fiasco in 2002 and 2003. I don’t remember bloggers telling the NYT to sit on the illegal and warrantless wiretaps story for an entire year, and an election year at that. I don’t remember bloggers convincing the likes of Bob Woodward or Tim Russert to circle the wagons around Scooter Libby when he outed Valerie Plame. And I definitely don’t remember bloggers encouraging the establishment media to declare Dubya-era torture a non-issue that we all need to just get over, in the name of a false “looking forward” reconciliation based on willfully ignoring illegality, corruption, lies, and moral atrocities.

So, thanks for the civics lesson, State of Play, but I’m not sure I can hold those wretched, superficial bloggers entirely accountable for the decline of paper-and-ink newspapers these days. Look, I’m as sorry to see journalism in the woeful financial state it’s in as the next guy. But — when it comes to enabling and cooperating with manifestly corrupt behavior in Washington — y’all might want to look at your own hands too. Not all of those stains are ink.

He’s Our Specter Now.

“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.” In today’s big news, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announces he’s becoming a Democrat. [Statement.] (Note the construction there. The voters switch over, and suddenly Specter reevaluates his political philosophy. A true statesman.)

Well, welcome to the new Big Tent, Senator. On one hand, this is clearly a PR coup for we Democrats. The country didn’t really need another reminder that the Grand Old Party has degenerated badly in recent years, but this can’t help but make the point crystal-clear once again. When even a guy like Specter wants nothing to do with you, that’s saying something. Here’s hoping Sens. Snowe and Collins of Maine follow his lead soon.

That being said, I wouldn’t really call Specter a great pick-up for us. Sure, I’m glad that he’ll feel the need to bend to the left politically rather than to the right from now on (where he was basically dead in the water — hence today’s decision.) But as far as politicans go, “Spineless Specter” has been more craven than most over the past few years. He folded badly on the illegal NSA wiretaps and was all too happy to push gaybaiting legislation through the Judiciary committee when it suited his GOP masters.

Plus, consider the timing here. Unlike Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who forced a Senate reorganization in 2001 (and subsequently paid a price for it once the GOP reassumed control in 2003), Specter’s switch doesn’t really change the balance of power all that much. Sure, he’s the 60th vote for cloture…if he does in fact vote with the Dems. But a Liebermanesque “independence” is probably more likely from him. And did we really need another Joe Lieberman? Surely the Keystone State could’ve provided us with a sounder Democrat to get behind in 2010.

Over in the NY Review of Books, Specter has recently suggested that he wants to help roll back the expansion of executive power, which he deems increasingly out-of-control since 9/11. Again, bully for him, I’m all for it. But he did a less than stellar job on this front during the warrantless wiretaps and censure resolution episodes, so it’s hard to take him seriously as an exemplar of civil liberties at this late date.

So now Specter’s playing for the home team, as it were. Well, ok, I much prefer D’s to R’s. But if the party label is going to mean anything, Sen. Specter really needs to start living up to it.

Dressed in Black Again.

Today is Dylan Day, but before Together Through Life moves to first spot in the iPod rotation, some thoughts on Depeche Mode’s latest, Sounds of the Universe, released last Tuesday. (I know it’s always been fashionable to bag on DM here in the States, Southern California excepted, but I’m an old-school Mode guy from way back…as people who knew me in my youth — and the many black ensembles in my high-school wardrobe — will attest.)

To get the bad news out of the way first, the obscenely catchy first single, “Wrong,” is far and away the high point of the album. I warmed slow to this ditty at first, but, even tho’ it unfolds at a more relaxed tempo than I might prefer, it’s undeniably infectious. With Dave Gahan in full street-preacher mode and Marty Gore carrying the song home in the final stanzas, “Wrong,” like “Precious” on Playing the Angel and “It’s No Good” on Ultra, can stand proudly with the best singles of the halcyon days, and that’s no small thing.

That being said, there are a lot of filler tracks on Sounds of the Universe, and it’s a hard album to recommend to anyone but tried-and-true DM fans (who don’t need the recommendation anyway — they all bought multiple versions of it, likely along with tour tix and a DM t-shirt, last Tuesday.) Along with producer Ben Hillier, who’s good with the bells and whistles, I guess, but never really manages to make the DM sound “fill the room” as it did in the Daniel Miller/Flood days — SotU is often far too tinny), the band seem to be exploring ways to resurrect and update their old synth-sound without over-forcing the issue. The results are mixed.

(Digression: For a good example of “over-forcing the issue,” imho, listen to U2’s recent No Line on the Horizon, which to me sounds like a bunch of quintessential-to-the-point-of-feeling-contrived U2 hooks interpersed amid long sessions of random studio noodling. No songs really coalesce therein — it sounds like someone fiddling with the dial on a radio that only plays U2. And No Line is all glommed together with that uber-Lanois production sound. I like Daniel Lanois, he’s done some landmark albums — Achtung Baby, Us, Time Out of Mind — and I’ve even bought some of his solo stuff over the years. (“Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” is a mixtape standby.) But it all does kinda sound the same after awhile.)

The question arises on SotU: What is DM’s old sound? “Fragile Tension,” like “Lillian” on the previous album, goes whole-hog with the early-synth pulse, recalling the very early days of the band — Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame, etc. Alas, it doesn’t really work. (As a vocalist, Gahan does some things really well — melisma isn’t one of them.) “Spacewalker” is another atmospheric instrumental a la “The Great Outdoors!”, “St. Jarna,” or “Agent Orange,” the type of moody keyboard piece that conjures up visions of Eurothrillers like George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (or, more on topic, Anton Corbijn’s Strange.) “In Chains,” on the other hand, is more in the later-period gospel-grunge mode of “Clean,” “Higher Love,” or “Condemnation” (with a touch of the bang-the-metal interlude of “Stripped”) — it’s perfectly acceptable, I guess, but it doesn’t really bring much new to the table.

Those tracks aside, main songwriter Martin Gore spends too many songs in the treacly New Age, post-rehab platitude rut that characterizes at least a few tracks on every album since 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion. (See “Freestate” or “I am You,” for example.) The middle of SotU in particular — “Fragile Tension,” “Little Soul,” “In Sympathy,” the Beatlesque by way of Tears for Fears second singlePeace” — all run together in this fashion.

Speaking of sounding-like-TfF, my second favorite song on the album is probably “Perfect,” which argues amusingly that even when you consider the Anathem-like philosophical ramifications of string theory, the DM multiverse is still on the bleak side. (“In a parallel universe that’s happening right now, things between us must be worse, but it’s hard to see just how.“) That being said, with its mid-80’s key changes and all, “Perfect” sounds eerily like a long-lost Howard Jones number.

In its favor, SotU is the first DM album where the Gahan-penned contributions intermix with the Gore fare enough to be virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, while two of the Gahan songs — “Come Back” and “Miles Away/The Truth Is” — are a little over-produced (The stripped down version of “Come Back” which leaked a few months ago attests to this), it’s the lead singer, rather than Gore, who seems to have a better handle on “that classic DM sound.” In effect, while Gore sometimes seems a bit lost in his gospel influences lately, Gahan — as one review I read somewhere well put it — has improved to the point of becoming a pretty good Depeche Mode tribute band.

Now even I, a DM fan of long standing, am prone to bag on how much of the classic Mode oeuvre revolves around sex, sin, obsession, religion, and redemption. (My love is a black car, and you crucify me on the steering wheel because I asked you to, etc. etc.) Still, the best moments on Sounds of the Universe are when they stop reaching for some new synthetic harmony and, as with “Wrong”, just let that old freak flag fly. Put another way, it’s when DM stops trying to fuse their early synth and later gospel periods into a new, cohesive sound and goes right for the crunchy, tongue-in-cheek “Master and Servant”-to-“Personal Jesus”-style crowd-stompers that the album really works best.

Gahan’s “Hole to Feed,” for example, is a jaunty ditty about what one might call the Benjamin Braddock problem — once you’ve finally managed to land the one true love you’ve been writhing and pining for…well, then what? (“We are here, we can love, we share something. I’m sure that you mean the world to me. When you get what you need, there’s no way of knowing what you have is another hole to feed.“) As for “hole to feed,” I’ll let you figure that one out. But, like any number of vaguely raunchy DM songs (or like Gary Oldman endlessly stuffing the hole in his backyard with cash in Romeo is Bleeding), the metaphor here isn’t very oblique.

Similarly, with its creepy-filthy blips and trademark Gahan croon, “Corrupt,” the album closer, is another electroblues number that’s right in DM’s usual wheelhouse (“I could corrupt you, it would be easy. Watching you suffer, Girl, it would please me.“) And it suggests the sexy, mordant fun the band could be having if they stop trying to grope toward some new respectable Zen plateau and just unabashedly do what they do best.

Along those lines, I’d argue that some of the best songs of the SotU sessions were inexplicably left off the album (but are included in the deluxe version, which also offers 14 very worthwhile demos of earlier songs such as “Walking in My Shoes” and “Little 15”. Think DM standards done with Magnetic Fields simplicity.) That may be because they just feel looser and less forced than many of the album cuts. A sinister electronic sibling to Kristin Hersh’s indie rock standard “Your Ghost,” DM’s “Ghost” is driven by the most infectious and mesmerizing synth backbeat of the new tracks. (“I’m the ghost in your house, calling your name. My memory lingers, you’ll never be the same. I’m the hole in your heart, I’m the stain in your bed, the phantom in your fingers, the voices in your head.“)

The Sun and the Moon and the Star” is the type of throwback torch song that Martin Gore probably writes over breakfast every morning, but it’s still more resonant than “Jezebel,” the one that’s officially on the album. (And, tbh, neither will replace classics like “Somebody” or “The Things You Said” in the hearts of Gore aficionados.) And “Oh Well,” the first song co-written by Gore and Gahan, succeeds because it’s nothing more or less than what it aspires to be — a propulsive club cut designed just to get ’em dancing. I’ll let that song sum up my general impression of SotU, which is a mostly harmless outing, and works best when it doesn’t try so hard: “It’s nothing to feel ashamed about, nothing I can complain about. Oh well.

A Republic of Knowledge.

“I believe it is not in our character, American character, to follow — but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than 3 percent of our gross domestic product to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.

It’s poetry in motion: In a clear break with his predecessor, President Obama pledges $420 billion for basic science and applied research. “And he set forth a wish list including solar cells as cheap as paint; green buildings that produce all the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again and ‘an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us.’” Huzzah! (And fwiw, I would also like more manned spaced exploration…and a jetpack.)

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